The peak frequency for the streetcar is expected to be every twelve minutes. That's not good enough.
12 minutes doesn't sound so bad when you first think about it. But frequency matters. If you miss the streetcar by 1 minute, you're going to be waiting another 11. I can walk a mile in that time. The whole streetcar route only covers 2.5 miles total. And when it picks you up, except in the small span of the trolley tunnel on the East Side, it will be in mixed traffic. The entire span of the streetcar should be car-free, from the East Side to at least where it crosses I-95 to Prairie.
I'm concerned that if we don't have at least 5 minute spacing, the streetcar is going to be competition for walking rather than competition for driving. And what that means is that people like me who are able-bodied will not pay a fair to ride, but will instead walk, people who are used to driving will still drive, and people who are without any option to walk will use the streetcar. I don't say this to beat up on the idea of a streetcar in total, but because I want to demand that it be excellent in quality, and this has a lot of problems.
If you add these problems to the fact that one of the major hubs still appears to be planned around a parking garage instead of a market, apartments, and workplaces, and you get really depressed at the prospect that this project might not work out as well as it could.
The other thing that concerns me is the idea of branching in different directions. If we develop other branches, they should be their own lines with interchanges, not branches like the prongs of a fork. Jarrett Walker discusses the idea of forked lines a lot, and I have personal experience with it from living on the trolley lines in West Philly. If you're near the hub where all those trolleys are coming through--in West Philly this would be anywhere on the underground part of the line as far as 40th and Baltimore Ave--you can get a trolley going either way every couple minutes at certain times of day. But the farther you get from where those branch lines separate, the less you have options to use them all. The very endpoint for even having two viable options of the five was Clark Park, at 43rd Street. If you were willing to stand in the middle of the block-long park and sprint towards either Chester Avenue or Baltimore depending on which trolley you saw coming first, you could have double the frequency and double the options. Beyond that point, you really have to get lucky, because there's no way of knowing which one is first, and you have to make a choice.
I've experienced this in the West Side of Providence. We have a lot of buses coming through, and on a map it looks like a lot of options. There's one on Atwells, there's several on Broadway, several on Westminster. But these routes require you to know a schedule, because they can't be run every couple minutes, even at peak hours. And the schedule may be off. So you have A) do the annoying memorization, B) hope that the schedule is right, and C) make a Sophie's choice about which street you'll walk to today. I think that on a fixed budget, RIPTA would do best to run one line up Broadway every couple minutes during peak hours, and eliminate the Atwells and Westminster lines (we had an interesting conversation in the comments section of GCPVD at one point where it was pointed out that Westminster has a lot of potential for transit oriented development, and I think that's true, so maybe the line should be put on Westminster instead. But I think that Broadway is the better option since it's more centralized). There may be a need to get people north or south, but the way to do that is to create another, completely separate line on Dean into Prairie (where the streetcar is going to end) and have frequent connections.
Jarrett Walker says that politicians who like transit often don't take it themselves, and though they're very sincerely for improving transit options, they often think that speed of the vehicle and the number of branch lines is the way to judge success. That's because they're looking at this like a car driver, where one autonomously moves the vehicle at whatever schedule one wants to whatever place one wants. But as a bus or streetcar that method doesn't work. I understand why having even a short spur up to the train station sounds like a great idea, but I think it's going to dilute service frequency. You're only going to have so many people who are even heading in the direction of the train station, and that's going to cut the ridership in two pieces. We need to start thinking of Providence's transit options as a connected grid with transfer points, instead of this zig-zag formation connecting to an otherwise hub-and-spoke bus system.